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The Rise and Fall of Oakland's Bordertown Skate Park

The Rise and Fall of Oakland's Bordertown Skate Park
Courtesy Bordertown Skate Park

Fenced-off and empty cement areas beneath freeway overpasses have long been popular spots for skateboarders looking to construct do-it-yourself skate parks. They're far less popular, naturally, with the jurisdictions responsible for the upkeep of those freeways.

So it was unsurprising when the California Department of Transportation – Caltrans – announced back in 2005 that it planned to demolish a year-old skater-built park constructed under Interstate Highway 580 near the Oakland-Emeryville border. Unsurprising, but nonetheless disappointing to the local skateboarders who had spent hours pouring concrete and shaping ramps for Bordertown Skate Park, a project they argued was a much-needed asset for the community.

The community, as it turned out, agreed, and elected officials from the city to the state to the U.S. Senate soon joined the cause, voicing their support for the park. Caltrans and the City of Oakland eventually came to an agreement that allowed the city to formally lease the land from the state, which in turn subleased it to Bordertown Skate Park. A September 2005 press release from Caltrans called the deal “an innovative pact.”

To play nice with the powers that be, the park’s organizers obtained building permits and filed zoning papers, had blueprints drawn up and the soil tested for toxins. They even contributed $2,500 toward a $25 million liability insurance policy for the site. As part of their conditional lease agreement, Bordertown agreed to keep the site free of litter, a service it would provide in lieu of rent, according to Caltrans spokesperson Bob Haus. The illegal skatepark, guerrilla-built by a bunch of skater kids, had become a legitimate, city-sanctioned community skating area.

But in 2008, the lease on that land expired and the city decided not to renew it. According to Sue Piper, a spokesperson for the city of Oakland, the park’s organizers didn’t comply with the terms of their agreement, which included construction bonding requirements and the submission of engineering plans. Haus at Caltrans says the state wanted plans for a professionally designed and engineered park. The group submitted plans, but didn’t provide certain details about lighting, ingress and egress. As the sub-lessor, the city would be faced with the burden of meeting those requirements. But money was tight, and the city says it just couldn’t afford to keep Bordertown.

“It’s not that we didn’t like the idea,” Piper says, “but there are details to deal with.”

For the past year, the park had lived on illegally, just as it had in its early days. Despite efforts by the park’s organizers to raise funds and drum up the political support they’d enjoyed just a few years earlier, Caltrans is currently making plans to demolish the park, in addition to another unsanctioned DIY skatepark known as The Spot, which was torn down recently.

Haus says Caltrans is willing to work with communities and cities to utilize the “airspace” beneath overpasses. Plans are underway in San Francisco to build a city-sanctioned skate park beneath Highway 101. But unauthorized use is still illegal.

Bordertown Skate Park’s rise from underground project to political cause and public amenity and its subsequent trip up on the red tape of land use rules offers a cautionary tale for the skaters behind other parks like it: turning your DIY skate spot into a legal public park can happen, but it might just be easier to keep hopping that fence and hope the bulldozers don’t come.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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